On August 10, “BlacKkKlansman” will be released in theaters nationwide, marking the 38th feature film in the storied filmography of Spike Lee. As one of the pioneering figures of the 1980s independent film movement, Lee’s career has made him one of the most influential black filmmakers of all time. And with the release of his latest, early reviews prove that he hasn’t lost his flair for the politically-charged, provocative work that captivates audiences everywhere.
As we anticipate the award-winning “BlacKkKlansman,” AwardsCircuit takes this opportunity to look back on the highlights of Spike Lee’s career. Here are our picks for his 10 best films. Or as he would call them, the Top 10 Spike Lee Joints.
When he’s not making films, Spike Lee can often be seen courtside supporting one of his other passions – basketball. It’s hardly surprising therefore, that Lee would turn his camera towards the ultra-competitive sport for his 1998 film “He Got Game“. The film explores an intriguing premise, as an imprisoned father – Denzel Washington in one of his best roles – is given a one-week parole to convince his superstar basketball player son – NBA player Ray Allen – to play for the governor’s alma mater. As the father races against the clock to secure a reduced prison sentence, the film captivates as part exciting sports drama, part social commentary and ultimately, a touching father-son story.
Taking its cues from the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata”, “Chi-Raq” signaled a resurgence for Spike Lee after a few misses in the early part of this decade. Set in modern day Chicago, this pseudo-musical tells the story of a group of women who decide to withhold sex from their partners in a desperate ploy to end the plague of gang violence in their communities. Daringly blending comedy and drama through a razor-sharp screenplay, the resulting film is an entertaining yet thought-provoking critique on the crippling effects of the patriarchy, gentrification and America’s obsession with guns. And the message is delivered by a pitch-perfect ensemble of actors, most notably Teyonah Parris as the central seductress Lysistrata. Through her commanding performance, “Chi-Raq” stands out as his most powerfully feminist film to date.
It may be one of the lesser known titles on this list, but “Get on the Bus” is an essential entry in Spike Lee’s filmography. Released in 1996 during the one-year anniversary of the Million Man March, the film follows a group of unacquainted black men who share a bus on their way to that historic gathering. The film thus focuses on the wide-ranging conversations between this eclectic group of men, as they discuss police brutality, gang violence and other race-related issues. Throughout the narrative, Spike Lee’s activist voice speaks loud and clear – particularly with the inclusion of a film school student character – as he deftly balances the intimacy of a chamber piece with the transformative arc of a road movie, all leading up to an ultimately poignant conclusion.
With his bold filmmaking style, one would hardly associate Spike Lee with a genre as conventional as a biopic. But as it turns out, he just needed the right subject to come along. Indeed one could hardly think of a historical figure better suited to Spike Lee than Malcolm X, who finally got the biopic he deserved in 1992. Arguably his most ambitious project to date, Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” (often referred to simply as “X”) is an insightful portrait of the rise and fall of one of the most controversial yet invaluable leaders of the American Civil Rights movement. And in true Spike Lee fashion, the resulting film offers an uncompromising critique of the American society that shaped Malcolm X’s worldview. Furthermore, it’s also an epic cinematic showcase on a stylistic level, with eye-catching period costumes, immaculate production design and some of Lee’s boldest directorial choices to date.
After establishing a reputation for hard-hitting, adult-oriented fare, Spike Lee made a brief detour in 1994 with “Crooklyn“. This semi-autobiographical drama follows the daily lives of a middle-class black family in 1970s, as they deal with a range of struggles relating to their health, finances and the challenges of raising 5 children. Playing the parents, Alfre Woodard and Lee’s frequent collaborator Delroy Lindo are unsurprisingly compelling, but it’s the ensemble of child actors led by Zelda Harris who make the biggest impression. Indeed, amidst the film’s solemn moments, it’s the authentic child’s perspective that makes it Spike Lee’s most warm and effortlessly entertaining film to date.
Early in his career, Spike Lee proved that he wasn’t one to shy away from risk, when he tackled one of the most touchy subjects in American society with his provocatively titled “Jungle Fever.” Starring Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra, this drama explores the challenges and satisfaction of interracial dating in New York City. In many ways, “Jungle Fever” is a quintessential Spike Lee joint. It’s a messy jumble of ideas at times, but it’s never less than fascinating and passionately directed. And as an unexpected bonus, it features memorable performances of then rising stars Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry as a crack-addicted couple who provide hilarious comic relief.
Released 20 years after his debut feature, Spike Lee’s career hit a milestone in 2006 with the release of “Inside Man.” This heist thriller remains his biggest box office hit to date and it’s easy to understand why. The engrossing narrative keeps you on the edge of your seat and packs massive star power. Indeed, Denzel Washington and Clive Owen are riveting to watch as two men on opposite sides of the law, alongside compelling supporting performances from Jodie Foster, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Christopher Plummer.
If there’s only one must-see film on this list, then it’s definitely “Do the Right Thing.” Released in 1989, this ensemble dramedy is undoubtedly Lee’s signature film and is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. Set during a scorchingly hot summer in Brooklyn, the film gave literal meaning to the notion of New York City as a cultural “melting pot” with its diverse array of colorful characters. As tensions threaten to boil over, Lee’s vibrant use of sound, image and dialogue made this film a seminal 80s classic, with Danny Aiello and Ossie Davis giving standout performances as elder citizens struggling to keep the peace.
When it was released in 2002, neither critics nor audiences were overly enthusiastic towards Spike Lee’s “25th Hour.” But since then, the film has been reappraised as one of Spike Lee’s best. Taking place during the last 24 hours of freedom in the life of a convicted drug dealer, “25th Hour” is a poignant reflection on humanity and post-9/11 America. And in the lead role, Edward Norton gives one of the unsung performances of that year, evoking the somber heart of a city in recovery.
While Spike Lee is widely known for narrative features, his talents in non-fiction filmmaking are seriously underrated. Indeed, his activist spirit has led to some stellar documentary work in TV and film, including 1997’s “4 Little Girls.” This devastating account of the 1963 Alabama church bombing that killed 4 African-American girls earned Lee his 2nd Oscar nomination and deservedly so. As he unpacks the social context of racism and violence that led to the attack, as well as the chilling details of its execution, it’s a sobering reminder of the dark side of humanity. But it also gives a modicum of hope, as Lee also highlights the bombing’s positive effects in further stimulating the cause for civil rights.